Techniques for developing a better sense/continuity of self?
October 12, 2012 5:39 AM   Subscribe

Techniques for developing a better sense/continuity of self?

Starting to think I may have a problem with my sense of who I am.

I pinball between interests, hobbies, beliefs and outlooks on at most a weekly basis. I start things I don't finish, make commitments I don't keep. I'm halfway through 10 books or so. None of this is an insurmountable problem in itself, although it's annoying. More worrying is this deep-seated sense that I don't know who's there, beneath this constant flux of interests I try on and discard like costumes. Does everyone have this? Presumably to an extent, but is there anything proactive you can do about it?

My self-esteem is pretty damn low because all I know about myself is that I start things I don't finish. I'm a lousy friend and I struggle to maintain contact with people. Memory's an issue too, it's bad in an everyday sense of being forgetful, but I draw a total blank about whole years and periods of my life. I can't imagine this is an issue of repression, my life's pretty good, no major issues (some depression as a teenager which occasionally returns as a "black day" now and then). Again, this smashes any idea of continuity of self, the feeling that these are all steps on one journey. I can't feel proud of things I barely remember doing, even if I know I achieved them. It's hard to truly regret stuff I've only got second-hand reports of doing.

"The past is another country" and all that... but my past seems like another person, and whilst some major lifestyle, social and geographical changes are probably factors, even the person I was this time last year (same house, job, relationship) seems like a stranger. Sometimes I'll get snatches of my old lives and it will send me ricocheting off in that direction again looking for some kind of link to tie things together, but nothing sticks, nothing fits, every week it's another new costume to try on.

Help! Anyone been here? What worked for you? A friend suggested meditation was a good way to go, and if so how can I stop my "monkey mind" from sabotaging yet another new path?
posted by tzb to Human Relations (15 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hey, so you're a dilitante, I'll bet you know a bit about a lot of stuff. Makes you fun and interesting to be around.

You sound like a perfect candidate for an evaluation. You may have ADD or you might have some other thing organic going on. The issue with your memory is concerning.

You might also enjoy speaking to a therapist about forming a plan, setting some goals and generally pulling everything together.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:50 AM on October 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

How old are you? This sounds like being in your early 20s.
posted by empath at 5:57 AM on October 12, 2012

Response by poster: Late 20s, although this is how I've been since at least my late teens. Recognising patterns in my own life is not one of my strong points!

Thanks for the advice Ruthless, I expect you're right although I'm not sure what flavours of therapy are available local to me, or which would be appropriate.
posted by tzb at 6:03 AM on October 12, 2012

Have you tried writing a diary/journal? Even just writing down a date and a one-line description of something happening in your life might help. (I have a running log of events like getting promoted at work, exams taken, trips, holidays, illnesses, successes and failures, really good parties, concerts attended, etc.)
posted by gakiko at 6:06 AM on October 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd start with your GP, and request a referral to a neurologist for evaluation for ADD, Memory impairment, etc.

You may be referred to a psychiatrist for Rx and therapy beyond that. But start with medical and work your way down to psychological.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:09 AM on October 12, 2012

You show a lot of the same things that I personally go through. A lot of my bouncing around is a symptom of being raised in an abusive home (which might not have anything to do with you, of course, but maybe a shared connection to depression?).

Like a pp said, I have ADD and whether this is a symptom of that, I'm not sure.

I can't really give tips on how to overcome it, but I get a lot of positive comments from others about how I've "done everything", which is neat, I guess.

I sympathize on the friend front, I think I only have one or two long maintaining friendships, and those are with friends who are truly amazing (who have not given up on me).

As for prescriptions, I do not personally take anything as I feel like it stifles my creativity - but there are many days where I just want to be normal. Have one hobby that I'm good at, etc. but then I wouldn't be me (with my wild antics and what not).
posted by Danithegirl at 6:13 AM on October 12, 2012

Best answer: I struggle with something pretty similar, although there are some strong through-lines in my life and I'd say I've gotten somewhat better at follow-through over time.

I guess I'd do some thinking about why nothing sticks - is it because nothing really grabs you deeply, or do things grab you deeply for a few weeks and then loose their luster?

Do you enjoy something about all this change?
- A feeling of freedom because you know inside that you're not really committed?
- A feeling of being better than the squares who are stuck?
- A feeling that you will avoid all the dull cares and burnout of sticking around?
- Do you enjoy constantly being the new person at something?
- Do you enjoy not being held to high standards because you're new?
- Do you enjoy doing "amazingly well for a beginner" and then moving on before the challenges hit?

Do you fear sticking around?
Do you fear turning out to be bad at something if you try?
Do you fear that you won't be able to power through burnout or boredom?

One thing that has helped me a bit: seeking out projects where I am accountable to others. Projects with weekly meetings and clearly defined goals (most of this I've found via volunteer work) really help keep me on task - I build relationships in the project and I have incremental successes.

Also, here is a thing: when I was in my twenties, all my friends were in Comp Lit/Critical Theory. Because of a rather strange upbringing, it was very difficult for me to choose intellectual interests for myself rather than in order to comply with some external notion of what I "should" be studying. (For me this is a big deal!) I had interests that had persisted since childhood, but because of the upbringing/socialization, I did not perceive those as real interests. So I flailed around a lot - this week I was going to buckle down and read Lacan; then next week nothing would do but Deleuze; then after all I had to go back to Freud, but what about the anti-Freudians? All the while, I felt like I did not learn anything in depth and nothing seemed to stick. Finally, outside life intervened - my friends went off to graduate school and I had a bad bout of depression and could not study seriously.

Slowly, slowly interests came back, mostly things I'd liked since childhood but had considered "not real interests" : science fiction, a certain kind of literary criticism, material culture. I've since sold all my Lacan and much of my Deleuze. I do not study in a systematic way, but I feel like over a few years I've established some patterns of reading and thinking that are helpful and that build on each other.

It has been much more about being gentle with myself and building on what I already know than about Picking A Plan, also about drawing parallels between different things.

I might very well meet the criteria for ADD, but I'd say that those are a symptom, not a cause.

To what do I attribute all of this? Growing up in what was in many respects a very good home but was also very authoritarian. (Coupled with, you know, whatever genetic stuff predisposed me to be this way.) I've always had an unusual amount of trouble identifying what I want, separating it out from what I think I should want and what other people want me to want. I also grew up with an enormous amount of moral weight placed on all choices, and a lot of practice in hiding what I was reading/thinking. It is difficult for me to be systemic in my choices because emotionally I associate "my" choices with "stealthy things I can only do until I am forced to do something else so there is no point in trying to do anything long-term".

So anyway, how did you grow up? How did you learn to make choices and identify what you want?
posted by Frowner at 6:20 AM on October 12, 2012 [13 favorites]

Gakiko beat me to the journaling suggestion, so I'll second it. I have been in a similar state--feeling majorly disconnected from who I "used to be"--and journaling is the #1 thing that has helped. Also: therapy, yoga, meditation, and accepting I am continuously changing as a person and not getting attached to an identity. Perhaps you could think of yourself as someone who changes more rapidly than others and find positives in that, like being flexible and adaptable.

(I do very much agree about getting tested for ADD though.)
posted by peacrow at 6:20 AM on October 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can wholeheartedly relate and I'm not trivializing what may be deeper issues, but try this: at the times you're lamenting things you haven't finished, write down a few of them. Pick one, say a book. Finish it. Just choose something as an exercise, and do it. Finish it no matter what. Pay attention to how you feel while you're reading those 200 pages or whatever, but finish it. What do you have to lose, more time to lament?

One thing I've noticed in my unfocusey, procrastinatey ways ("monkey mind") is that thinking about doing stuff becomes an activity I make time for, and spending time on not doing stuff takes away time from doing stuff, and doing stuff is what fixes the impostor syndrome. Also: don't diagnose yourself with the internet.
posted by rhizome at 11:10 AM on October 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

What if 'continuity of self' was not a goal, not something to strive toward?

You sound like someone with a lot of interests. That's awesome! There's no shame in trying a bunch of stuff out and seeing how it fits. This is a feature, not a bug.

So, theres some stuff left unfinished. That's okay. Maybe go back and finish a few things if you want, if that's important to you.

One of my favorite quotes goes something like this: "When you're searching for yourself, it helps to stop and ask who is it that's looking".

posted by softlord at 1:40 PM on October 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lot of good suggestions here. I will second the medical/psychological eval, though. Very likely that's not going on here - but it would be good to have a rule-out. Much of what you're saying sounds verbatim like things I've heard from my partner for years, since before his bipolar diagnosis. And now that we go to some support groups, and I follow some bipolar discussion forums, I'm stunned to realize some of this was never just him being a dilettante or getting easily bored or trying on different personalities intentionally- some of it is what a fuckton of people with bipolar do and report feeling.
posted by Stacey at 2:00 PM on October 12, 2012

You may our may not find buddhist beliefs about self interesting. for example.
posted by ead at 9:15 PM on October 12, 2012

You sound like me, for most of my life. I was diagnosed with ADHD (minus the H part, but ADHD is how they diagnose nowadays) back in March. I have found that being medicated has made things so much better, but my memory still sucks in the day to day if I don't work at it.

Journaling, meditating, and exercising have all made things better when I make myself do them. They're often suggested in all of the "find yourself!" resources I've perused. I wonder sometimes if sense of self is a skill that can get rusty sometimes. You have to practice at it.

Get a journal and keep lists of what you love and want to do. Eventually a theme will arise and in the meantime, you practice sieving your thoughts.
posted by teslacoilswoah at 9:27 PM on October 12, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies guys. I've marked a few best answers as these were most relevant to me personally, but you all gave me new things to think about. Appreciate your taking the time!

I'm re-registering at a surgery nearer to my new address and will be making an appointment with my new GP to discuss an evaluation once this is done. I'm also considering booking onto a day-long Mindfulness Meditation taster course (and maybe a longer one if it's successful). I've also done a lot of reading on journalling and am thinking of taking the plunge - it does scare me slightly recording my honest feelings and thoughts in any format as it's so personal, but even just something minimal should help.

A great bit of advice I was given by MeFi Mail was to spend time each day looking in the mirror, to feel more connected to the person as opposed to the experience. Seems to be helping so far - thanks again for your great message.
posted by tzb at 2:55 AM on October 15, 2012

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